The Sunset Limited, based on the Cormac McCarthy play (which was cheekily marketed as ‘a novel in dramatic form'(?)), is the train that would’ve ‘X’ed-out suicidal Tommy Lee Jones (‘White’) but for the timely interventions of Samuel Jackson’s blue-collar proselytizer (‘Black’). From his purgatorial apartment, Black indefatigably expounds on the error of White’s ways whilst the latter stands firm in a rut of misanthropy and nihilism before unleashing his own rousing riposte. It’s a self-consciously stagey effort with warmed-over, though compelling, exchanges and a strictly two-tone emotional register. The performances wrest a grandeur from the material by mere dint of screen presence and game commitment. Enjoyable but not particularly memorable.
Limitless has Bradley Cooper shrugging off a stalled literary career and woeful bum hairdo by popping a new drug called NZT-48, which provides the user with ‘100% access’ to one’s brain and, in turn, the keys to quirky, cinema-friendly feats of insight and an end to writer’s block. He also rekindles a lost relationship, masters the stock exchange and ends up being tailed by de rigeur shadowy ciphers. De Niro turns up looking ravaged, disinterested and pre-paid and Cooper is surprisingly excellent, right until he gets a smart new suit and exits loserdom. Despite a few great moments, the whole thing is about an hour too long.
Insidious is, at times, genuinely odd and disquieting but suffers the usual last-third dwindle to nought. A couple (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) move to a new house, in which Amityville hokum soon gets underway, centring on their son, bed-ridden after a fall, a drafted-in psychic and two comedy stooges. The jumpy bits exceed what you’d expect from 12A certificate fayre but they‘re not justification enough for this largely derivative 90 minutes.
Finally: Woody. Another film. After the relative relief of the non-disastrous Whatever Works, here’s You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger, which carries an interesting set of performances from a great cast (amongst which there’s further confirmation that Naomi Watts has few peers) but an undeniably pervasive air of pointlessness. Marital strife, age-gap calamities, affairs, unrequited love: standard Woody concerns, infinitely better covered at the top end of his oeuvre. Mark this one for the bottom end or better, scratch it from the records.
Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, although it expended a little goodwill with an over-wrought tendency to wallow rather than observe, was a powerful, interesting look at buried memories and oblivion.
Kaboom, then, carries a certain expectation. Advance press dangerously spoke of ‘David Lynch meets Beverly Hills 90210’ leanings. It was apparently ‘nightmarish’, ‘genuinely scary’ and ‘a crazed joyride on which nothing is at it seems’.
For the first hour, Kaboom is a fairly successful soft-porn retread of Daniel Clowes/Michael Lehmann territory. We have the college kid, Thomas Dekker, who looks like Rob Lowe 25 years ago, fantasising about his room-mate, Thor, who looks like Thor and sounds like you’d imagine: a doofus. Because our central protagonist is gay and incessantly horny, Thor is on Dekker’s ‘tug-cinema’ roll-call. He does nothing to dissuade such unbeknownst erotic enlistment by openly trying to fellate himself.
Then you have the best-friend (Haley Bennett), a de-rigeur sourpuss babe with acrid asides and withering beauty. She’s a lesbian ‘seeing’ a Russian witch, until the (again beautiful) morose object of fleeting desire becomes, literally, too possessive. In a teen-show voodoo-doll style, replete with head-yanking, limb-twisting moves.
Furthermore comes the Brit girl, ‘London’ (Juno Temple), the best thing in the film by a mile, with a laissez-faire attitude to modesty and a few tutorials in cunnilingus. And the ability to root-out bisexual men for a quick birthday threesome.
A couple of storylines run through this carnal carnage but often flounder in a sea of camp. There’s a ‘mysterious’ sequence of cryptic messages that we don’t care about (and which lead to a barmy cult/parental element) and a girl found in a bright-red dumpster, which we continually revisit in flashback/dream-sequence/hallucination segments involving men in pig-masks that feel tacked on as a breather from all the sex and close-ups of immaculate ciphers.
It often looks wonderful, and there are plenty of Bret Easton Ellis touches: blue-neon, hip rancour, great clothes, cool laptops, lush environs, chic dread. And the script has the odd highpoint, despite often sounding like a curdled version of Saved By The Bell.
The layers of disbelief, though, become tricky to suspend as Araki’s ruse is blown. His borrowed strands become frayed and he throws in a savagely daft conspiracy deus-ex-machina failsafe, with literally no-one being who they seemed to be – half-baked characters out of a pilot-only madfest – and are lamely revealed as X-Files rug-pullers where they were perfectly serviceable as rug-munchers, a shamefully inept volte-face that Shaggy and Scoob would balk at.
The film has been described as ‘fun’, and it is, until Araki decides he can handle the nauseating swing from frothy, provocative comedy/drama to all-out horror. It ceases to be fun, interesting, explicable or tolerable.
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian film critic, suggests that this is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’. I suggest that this film is completely mad, chaos strung on a flimsy thread of teen-delusion, and hatstand bonkers, but not, in the end, in a good way. In a self-absorbed, preposterously careening, preening way: there is no shape to the film beyond the 70-minute mark, anything goes, and I went with five minutes to spare. Whoever greenlit Kaboom wants blowing up.
Le Quattro Volte, a painterly evocation of the Pythagorian maxim – ‘Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another…thus we must know ourselves four times’ – is an exquisite, often very funny, fearless and masterly example of contemplative cinema with a grand, poetic vision.
Set in Calabria, a predictably astonishing mountainous region in Italy, Le Quattro Volte is a moving odyssey taking in the ‘four stages’ of metempsychosis. Repeated bass-whumps paddle-slapped from a kiln form a disquieting introduction to this strange but alluring, quiet but loud exploration of a soul’s travel through fleeting guises, from which we undergo a powerfully conceived shedding of successive skins that’s both cumulatively affecting and as wordlessly articulate as you could hope from a dialogue-free 88 minutes.
For long periods, everything unfolds within the still frame: all bustle involves goats herded through Monet-esque bucolia by our nameless early protagonist, an old man with a nagging cough. Empty frames are slowly populated by cows heading towards the camera from the middle distance, the only sound the tinkling of their bells as they trot through a field. The old man sits in the grass at one point, an insect traversing his face, before gently willing it away. The dwindled sounds of quiet human occupation punctuate the slow slip of time; we are led into an inexorable meditative state, in which, as the old man’s downward fixation during a moment of repose as he contemplates something impossible to fathom, but which is clearly of a melancholy nature, inevitably leads us to ponder the old questions. It’s the films great victory that this ends up provoking gladdened, not grim, musings upon timelessness and the moments on Earth we get as a profound gift, not a tantalising glimpse of maddening futility. This is an emancipated but wilfully earthbound film.
Our elderly protagonist, who clouds a nightly glass of water with a murky, paper-enfolded substance (which we discover as effulgent-swirl dust sweepings from the local church floor, blessed and carefully wrapped by a woman of uncertain identity, in exchange for goat milk), spoon-mixes and gulps it, is thwarted in this pre-sleep dietary ritual; he has mislaid the mysteriously-propertied particles and clambers out of bed hurriedly to lamplit empty streets and unanswered knocks on the knuckle-muffling doors of the church.
Then there’s the dog who, at first unsuccessfully, initiates some comedic narrative momentum with a well-judged removal of a brick keeping a small truck from rolling down a steep decline…
…which leads to our finding the old man (literally) breathing his last as his flock congregates and observes this temporary end of the cycle. Here’s one of those transcendental cinema moments that you wait for and experience seldom: a bizarre, unpredictable but beguiling interruption that seems instantly iconic and is. You’d be surprised how stirring a clomping crowd of goats rattling and scuffling around a sunlit rustic hovel could be.
What follows includes the brief life and times of a charming, doomed kid – director Michelangelo Frammartino managing to render an involving vignette with well-chosen encapsulations of delightful naivety – whose straying wintry end fathoms a soul’s relocation into the large tree under which the kid succumbs, which we see, during the following spring, felled amidst chainsaw-backed whoops and transported to a village where it will form the centrepiece to a local celebration, the pared, savagely pruned and honed result a much-cheered travesty. From this the plummeted tree is hacked into segments and, ultimately, heads back to the darkness of the percussively pummelled kiln as charcoal. This entire procession has the feel of quiet, reverent inevitability.
So we’re back where we started; the soul awaits another sequence upon which to tether itself. Lives have fallen but there is a poignant sense that nothing has been lost – the slow accretion of events and moments amidst quiet lives being their own reward, for both viewer and each of the ‘four’ strands forming each focal point during this peculiar, magical voyage.
The camera, still as it is, quietly indicts and marvels throughout at the scenes that occur; it’s a bemused witness to curious life. It’s an omniscient, sentient, stilled being moored to beatific vantage points, observing time’s infinitesimal wear on the belligerent landscape and it’s much harsher, swifter sway on everything living within it. Concurrently, the constant lack of camera intervention may speak of maddened impotence, or messianic distance. Things happen, the director says, souls venture, life thrives quietly, in myriad transmigrative forms and guises, from human to animal to vegetable to mineral. That is all. The onus is on the viewer as to the meaning, the weight, of that. Frammartino does not feel the need to intervene or affect, other than with the occasional close-up, which, in such a glacial, distanced context, is extraordinarily powerful. One thinks at different points of Ozu, Tarr, Tati, Chabrol, Bunuel. The frame, once set, contains a world and doesn’t need to derive one. You must dwell in it and acclimatise rather than wait for its emphasis. It all depends whether that’s enough for you. Some films give you nothing and do all your work. This is very much the opposite, and, given the attention it demands, more than rewards you.